When President Osguthorpe first arrived in the mission field, the South Dakota Rapid City Mission was baptizing, on average, something around 20 investigators a month. Overall, that represented around 1 or 2 converts per missionary, per year. President Osguthorpe is reported to have said, “We could do nothing, and still baptize as many people. Something is seriously wrong here.” As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, he concluded that what we lacked was faith. We didn’t believe we could bring more people to Christ. South Dakotans were just too hardened. They just didn’t care about what we had to offer. We didn’t believe the promise made in the scriptures that the field was white, and ready to harvest. We saw the field as dead and trampled, and believed it was time to move on.
At about the same time, I believe, President Hinckley challenged mission presidents to double of the number of converts coming into the church. President Osguthorpe took that challenge seriously. He taught. He instructed. He raised our visions. He showed us what could be. He sparked whatever faith was remaining and turned it into a flame. Miracles happened. I remember sitting in zone conference when President Osguthorpe played a recording of a phone call he had made earlier that week. It was a personal conversation between himself and President Hinckley (President Hinckley referred to him as “Russ”), in which he reported that the mission had more than accomplished its goal of doubling the number of converts. President Hinckley’s loving reply was, “That is excellent. Just excellent. Thank you. Now you hold on to them! Hold on to them. Let’s keep them.” During President Osguthorpe’s last month on the mission, I believe every missionary in the mission brought someone into the church.
The Prophetic Vision
Sometime, a few months after this, Elder Madsen from the Quorum of the Seventy visited our mission. The mission was alive with faith, and we believed that we could succeed. Elder Madsen acknowledged that, and then spoke primarily on two subjects: (1) the Atonement and our ability to repent, and (2) a prophetic vision of the future. Here’s what he said. I’m going to have to paraphrase, and I will likely misquote, since I’m working solely from my notes and from my memory. But the spirit of his remarks, I believe, are intact, and even though these quotes are unsubstantiated, I believe that this prophetic vision of the future of the church is well established in other sources. He said that he was in a recent meeting with President Hinckley, in which President Hinckley remarked that he sees that the day will soon come when the church surpasses 20 million members. Soon after that, he said, it will surpass 50 million. And soon after that, 75 million. The field is ready to harvest, we just need to faith to do it.
Elder Madsen extended President Hinckley’s remarks with a prophesy of his own. He talked about how Peter boldly invited the masses to come unto Christ, to believe in His resurrection, and to be baptized in His name. “The same day there were added unto [the church] about three thousand souls.” He said, “Wow, that doesn’t seem to happen very much today. Times sure are different, right? No, not right. That will happen today, if we but have faith.” He cited a verse two chapters later in the book of Acts, when Peter’s testimony converted 5000 men. He cited another, and then another. He turned to the Book of Mormon, and found more. He explained that miracles are not dead. The message of the Book of Mormon is that miracles are just as possible today as in ancient times. All we have to do is believe. We must cease doubting, cease fearing, and simply expect miracles to happen. Elder Madsen said that he sees the day, in the not-too-distant future, when missionaries in the SDRCM will no longer tract or contact people in the streets. Our daily schedules will be so filled with teaching appointments that there will be no time to go out and find people on our own.
How It Will Happen
Now, consider, this was a time when we had to carefully balance our teaching and finding activities, for fear that if we spent too much time teaching, our investigator pool would dry up. So the idea of teaching without finding seemed novel and counter to what we were expected to do as missionaries. How could we teach without finding people to teach? Since finding is the most exhausting work of a missionary, this idea seemed heavenly, but somewhat implausible. However, the answer came when Elder David A. Bednar visited the mission not too long afterwards. Except, he didn’t visit the mission, he visited the members in the mission for a regional conference. He gave an almost identical talk to one he gave in General Conference in 2008. In that talk, he said (I’m quoting his 2008 conference talk, since the wording is virtually identical):
We properly pray for the safety and success of the full-time missionaries throughout the world. And a common element in many of our prayers is a request that the missionaries will be led to individuals and families who are prepared to receive the message of the Restoration. But ultimately it is my responsibility and your responsibility to find people for the missionaries to teach. Missionaries are full-time teachers; you and I are full-time finders. And you and I as lifelong missionaries should not be praying for the full-time missionaries to do our work!
There was the answer: missionaries are to be full-time teachers, just as Elder Madsen prophesied they would be someday. Ordinary members, like you and I, are to do the finding. That is how Elder Madsen’s prophesy will come true (and those who have served missions will likely know that this is the only way it can come true). Because of the experiences I had while I was on my mission, I have been trained to expect miracles. So I look upon this not with skepticism, but with exhilaration and excitement.
A Personal Duty
As I’ve studied conference talks on missionary work, and Preach My Gospel, it seems clear to me that the Lord’s servants are trying to revise the way we think about missionary work. Missionary work is not something full-time missionaries do. Missionary work is something we all do. President Henry B. Eyring said, “The duty to warn our neighbor falls on all of us who have accepted the covenant of baptism. We are to talk with nonmember friends and relatives about the gospel.” President Eyring continues:
I’ve studied carefully and prayerfully some who are remarkably faithful and effective witnesses of the Savior and His Church. Their stories are inspiring. One humble man was called as the president of a tiny branch. There were so few members he could not see how the branch could function. He walked into a grove of trees to pray. He asked God what he should do. An answer came. He and the few members began inviting friends to join with them. In a year, hundreds had come into the waters of baptism and become fellow citizens in the Lord’s Church.
I know a man who travels almost every week in his work. On any day there are missionaries somewhere in the world teaching someone he met. There is another man who seems undeterred by how many he must speak to before any of them wish to be taught by the missionaries. He doesn’t count the cost in his effort but only the happiness of those whose lives are changed.
There is no single pattern in what they do. There is no common technique. Some always carry a Book of Mormon to give away. Others set a date to find someone for the missionaries to teach. Another has found questions which draw out feelings about what matters most in life to a person. Each has prayed to know what to do. They each seem to get a different answer, suited especially to them and to the people they meet.
Let me repeat what President Eyring said: there is no single pattern in what they do. However, I suspect there is at least one pattern: none of them do nothing. They all do something.
Missionary Work Is Work
I wish to highlight another sentence(s) here as well: “There is another man who seems undeterred by how many he must speak to before any of them wish to be taught by the missionaries. He doesn’t count the cost in his effort but only the happiness of those whose lives are changed.” Anyone who has served a mission knows that in order to teach 1 person, they will often have to approach 100 people. In order to baptize 1 person, they will often have to teach dozens upon dozens people. While I think the odds are better for the ordinary member, we need to remember that it requires work. Too often, I think the scenario plays out this way: we approach two different people and invite them to church, and after both refuse, we’ll conclude that we tried, failed, and have done our duty. The harsh reality is that in order to bring people to the missionaries to teach, we must be unceasingly praying, pondering, thinking, seeking, and trying. As Elder Bednar said, full-time missionaries should not bear most of the burden of finding people to teach. That is our burden to bear, and it requires time, patience, and unceasing effort. But as President Eyring has said, “Those who speak easily and often of the restored gospel prize what it has meant to them. They think of that great blessing often. It is the memory of the gift they have received which makes them eager for others to receive it.”
Too often, as I hear members speak about the importance of missionary work, I only hear stories from their mission (often some 40 years previous). This is often because they haven’t had any real, shareable missionary experiences since then. My personal goal is to never use a personal missionary story in a Gospel setting (successful or unsuccessful) that is more than 3 months old. Is this goal difficult? I actually don’t think it is at all. With fasting, prayer, and the Spirit, I believe it is not only possible, but plausible. And it is all really just a matter of being willing to invite. Elder Eyring explained, “When we bear testimony of truth to [others], we must convey to them the choices which, once they know that truth, they must make. There are two important examples: inviting someone to read the Book of Mormon and inviting someone to agree to be taught by the missionaries.” In my mind, inviting someone to come to church, or inviting them to read the Book of Mormon, or sharing my understanding of the Restored Gospel is not something we wait to do until prompted by the Spirit. It’s something we instinctively do unless prompted by the Spirit to wait. And if we are praying daily for spiritual guidance and are acting out of love, I believe that the Lord will provide the direction we need.
In conclusion, I would like to echo Elder Bednar’s challenge and promise: “I invite all of us to pray in faith about our divinely given mandate to proclaim the gospel. As we do so, I promise doors will open and we will be blessed to recognize and act upon the opportunities that will be provided.” President Eyring makes the same promise:
To be part of [this] miracle, you must not wait until you feel closer to Heavenly Father or until you are sure that you have been purified through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Pray for the chance to encounter people who sense there could be something better in their lives. Pray to know what you should do to help them. Your prayers will be answered. You will meet people prepared by the Lord. You will find yourself feeling and saying things beyond your past experience.
I think it’s possible to ceaselessly invite others to investigate the Restored Gospel, by word and example. It requires that we stop justifying our lack of effort with excuses. I learned from President Osguthorpe that the only thing that was holding the SDRCM back were excuses and a lack of faith. With President Osguthorpe, President Hinckley, Elder Madsen, Elder Bednar, President Eyring, and countless others, I believe miracles are possible. If they’re possible in South Dakota, they’re possible everywhere. And, as these miracles unfold, as we see the promises that have been made come true, I think we’ll experience something somewhat like Ammon did, and something like the church experienced among the Nephites: “And it came to pass that in this same year … there were thousands who did join themselves unto the church and were baptized unto repentance. … And it came to pass that the work of the Lord did prosper unto the baptizing and uniting to the church of God, many souls, yea, even tens of thousands. Thus we may see that the Lord is merciful unto all who will, in the sincerity of their hearts, call upon his holy name.” (Helaman 5)